Obituaries as a Genre

"A genre comprises a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style. Communicative purpose is both a privileged criterion and one that operates to keep the scope of a genre as here conceived narrowly focused on comparable rhetorical action. In addition to purpose, exemplars of a genre exhibit various patterns of similarity in terms of structure, style, content and intended audience… The genre names inherited and produced by discourse communities and imported by others constitute valuable ethnographic communication, but typically need further validation.”  - J.M. Swales (3)

As obituaries are considered a genre, they are expected to possess certain characteristics typical of this type of writing. Similarly, other literary genres like fiction, comedy, or thriller, have their own rules that must be adhered to. For obituaries, there are four main components that each one, more or less, should follow. 

The initial stage in producing and recognizing obituaries as a distinct genre is their structure, which should primarily encompass two crucial elements: Firstly, providing the audience with information about the individual's death, including the reasons and circumstances, key details about their life, and surviving family members. Secondly, informing potential attendees about the services, donations, and contributions, including the date, time, and location. (4)

The subject matter and tone of obituaries are also seen as of equal importance. The tone is typically respectful, formal, and solemn as those characteristics are common with anything surrounding the death of an individual. Furthermore, the subject matter typically consists of paying tribute to the deceased by emphasizing their most cherished and memorable qualities and significant achievements, as well as expressing emotions of sorrow and mourning in response to the loss caused by death. (5)

The literary devices used are another crucial piece in order to evaluate obituaries as a genre. In most cases, obituaries use a series of hyperboles, metaphors, and similies, as well as the use of “loaded” words. These types of devices are typically used when either writing something satirical, humorous, or heartfelt. (6)

Publishing is the last, and most crucial aspect of seeing obituaries as a genre. When a significant number of obituaries are written and published with a similar structure, language, and content, it can establish a distinctive style of writing that may be recognized as a genre. As more obituaries are produced and circulated in this manner, the conventions of the genre become more apparent and easily identifiable to both writers and readers. Consequently, the publication and dissemination of this type of writing can contribute to the establishment of a recognized genre. (7)

Below are some examples of early obituaries and how they follow the formation of a genre:

Hamilton Spectator Obituary, 1853

Hamilton Spectator Obituary, 1853

Fig. 3: This example, coming from over 100 years before Judith's, shows that they follow a very similar structure and tone, while also following the component of being published in a newspaper. Even though both obituaries are rooted in two completely different histories, one can easily distinguish what it is. 

Hamilton Spectator Obituary, 1870

Hamilton Spectator Obituary, 1870

Fig. 4: Although this obituary was published 17 years later, it is essentially structured and written the same.

Obituary of George Dunk, 1894

Obituary of George Dunk, 1894

Fig. 5: This obituary provides more expansive and fascinating conclusions. Firstly, the structure of this obituary remains relatively the same, as it states the primary and necessary information of what the structure should be. Secondly, the tone and subject matter are quite different. There is more emphasis on Dunk's personal life and character than in the previous two. This may be due to a variety of reasons, but most likely is due to the tragic manner in which he died and how young he was. Additionally, a photo is provided, which is not seen among the other obituaries seen. 

The Vancouver Sun 
Obituaries, 1912

The Vancouver Sun Obituaries, 1912

Fig. 6: These obituaries from the Vancouver Sun provide a mixture of the previous three. Their structure and literary devices are similar, but the subject matter and tone are quite varied. 

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